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Wyoming professor joins interdisciplinary NASA group

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CASPER, Wyo. (AP) — When Hannah Jang-Condell looks to the stars above Laramie, she is struck by the questions many before her have asked:

Is there life out there? Are we alone? How'd the planets get there?

For most, that's where inquiry ends. But for Jang-Condell, it's only the beginning.

The University of Wyoming assistant professor has been researching such questions using the Yellowstone supercomputer in Cheyenne to generate powerful simulations that scrape away at the layers of mystery in the universe. Recently tapped by NASA, she has now joined a team of top researchers from around the country in an unprecedented, interdisciplinary study of exoplanets — or the planets outside our solar system.

Over the next three years, Jang-Condell, a Chicagoan who studied at MIT and Harvard before coming to UW, will work with earth scientists, planetary scientists, heliophysicists and astrophysicists on a team called NExSS. The acronym stands for the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science. By bringing the team together, a historically distant bunch, according to Jang-Condell, a better understanding of the distant planets will hopefully emerge.

Jang-Condell's role: to lead a UW team studying the evolution of planet formation.

"Right now, all we have is theory," she said. "We have some idea about how planets form. But if we want to actually probe that process, we need to study the observations of those young discs. My help is to basically interpret those observations."

After a star is born, there are "discs" of material left — what Jang-Condell refers to as "junk." Particles within the "disc" then collide until planet-size objects are formed, she said, but there's still leftover gas.

"I'm interested in, once you form those planets, the planet has to interact with that gas disc - is that going to affect how that disc and planet evolves?" she said.

She added that the gas discs also have key characteristics, which she referred to as signatures, consisting of "gaps, spiral arms and clumpiness."

"If we can pin-point signatures in these discs and say, 'That is a definitive signature of a planet forming,' and we can deduce from that signature how massive it is and where it is," she said. "That tells us a lot about the planet formation process."

Jang-Condell's team, along with teams from Berkeley, Stanford, Arizona, Penn State University and other schools and organizations, will meet once a year for the next three years to discuss their progress. The idea is that multiple research papers will come out of the collaboration, she said.

The group met for the first time last month in the nation's capital. They met in small groups and brainstormed about the questions they should ask and the projects they should collaborate on.

"It was kind like speed dating," Jang-Condell said.

The study of exoplanets is a young, explosive field. Since the first exoplanet was discovered in 1995 — 51 Pegasi B — which was the first to be found orbiting a star similar to the Sun, some 1,000 others have been discovered.

As researchers find an ever-increasing number of these planets, it is bringing the world closer to finding an answer to whether there is life beyond Earth, Jang-Condell said.

"This is my way of looking at that question," she said.


Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune,

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